Sound Transit’s $375K payout to ex-CEO didn’t buy help

Board members said Julie Timm would give professional advice to them or a future CEO after leaving, but she hasn’t been called upon.

Julie Timm

Julie Timm

By Mike Lindblom / The Seattle Times

Despite predictions by Sound Transit board members that ex-CEO Julie Timm would give professional advice to them or a future CEO in exchange for her $375,000 severance payout, she hasn’t been asked to provide any services this year.

Back in mid-December, Timm announced after 16 months leading the regional agency, she would leave to care for her ailing father on the East Coast. At the same time, some board members were dissatisfied with her performance, citing what they considered a slow pace of slashing red tape as directed, and failing to hire a world-class megaproject executive as quickly as they wanted, to tame spiraling costs and delays.

The board unanimously voted Dec. 15, with minimal comment, to sign a “transition services agreement” requiring Timm to advise her successor monthly until January 2025, if called upon.

Timm has not provided advice or training to staff since her CEO employment ended Jan. 12, an agency spokesperson confirmed last week.

To succeed Timm, the board quickly hired interim CEO Goran Sparrman, who has a quarter-century of local experience, managing transportation departments in Bellevue and Seattle as well as teams at big engineering firms.

“At the time of Julie’s departure, the Board did not know who the next leader would be or that Goran Sparrman would be named interim CEO. Because of the depth of knowledge about transportation in the region that Goran brings to the agency, we haven’t needed to turn to Julie for transition assistance,” spokesperson John Gallagher said in an email.

Board Chair Dow Constantine, who is also King County executive, reiterated those points in a spokesperson’s statement to The Seattle Times last week, adding “the obligation remains, and she could be asked to provide services through January 2025 should the need arise.”

Timm received her full $375,000 severance Feb. 2, according to a pay stub released through the state public records act. During January she was cashed out for another $60,284 in unused personal leave, along with her final few weeks of salary and work-expense allowances.

She didn’t return to celebrate last month’s opening of the East Link Starter Line in Bellevue and Redmond, though that was her prime achievement as CEO, to launch that 6-mile corridor until overdue cross-lake tracks to Seattle are done in late 2025. Timm also made progress cleaning downtown stations and improving escalator reliability. (Timm hasn’t replied to interview requests since December; the departure agreement forbids Timm and transit officials from disparaging each other, which it says would cause “irreparable harm.”)

Originally, politicians on the transit board insisted the public was getting value for the $375,000 because Timm’s assistance could help the next leader get started.

“She’s actually offering to be available to us for up to a year. So to me, it’s more as she’s still being available to work,” said then-Vice Chair Kent Keel, of Pierce County. Likewise, Vice Chair Dave Somers, the Snohomish County executive, predicted Timm would be a “very close consultant.”

To be sure, Somers described other motivations to “keep things positive,” and close Timm’s exit deal quickly, so the agency wasn’t sidetracked by a lengthy negotiation and debate while challenges loom in 2024.

Though a mere drop in this year’s $3.1 billion budget, sums like these are real money to residents and businesspeople who’ll never see a six-figure severance payment. The public pays $2.4 billion in local taxes, or $700 per capita across urban Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, including an often loathed car-tab tax.

Charles Prestrud, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center and a frequent critic of Sound Transit, said December’s “transition services” language was designed from the outset to make spending $375,000 sound reasonable.

“We know the Sound Transit board is hypersensitive to bad public relations, so they do everything they can to put a positive face on things, and that’s what happened here,” he said.

Keel, who is no longer on the board, said last week the provision wasn’t meant to save face, and he sincerely thought Timm’s involvement was “something we felt that we need. We had construction going on everywhere. She had a body of knowledge.”

Timm’s predecessor, Peter Rogoff, was awarded a $379,600 severance when he left in May 2022. By then, Rogoff had stayed full-time CEO for seven months even after the board voted to not renew his contract the previous September. He still lives in Seattle, consults for transportation clients, and joined the board of a company that locates underground utility obstacles, like those which delayed the new Tacoma Link Hilltop Extension streetcar.

Sound Transit finally filled its new megaproject executive role this spring, hiring Terri Mestas away from Los Angeles International Airport for a $600,000 salary to work under Sparrman.

Sparrman, who earns $385,000 and up to $59,000 in possible bonuses, said he’s eager to spend more time hiking, and will therefore retire near his 70th birthday next January.

Sound Transit’s next milestone is a $3 billion train line from Northgate to Lynnwood, scheduled to open Aug. 30. A dozen or so future rail and bus projects are promised by the 2040s.

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